NEW YORK (AP) — During a recent interview in an empty midtown theater, James Lecesne is heckled — by his phone.
The writer and actor who co-founded The Trevor Project, a youth suicide prevention program, stirs in his seat and inadvertently launches Siri, the voice assistant on his smartphone.
“You are certainly entitled to that opinion,” Siri bleats from his back pocket.
“Wow, what’s her problem?” replies Lecesne, laughing. “What did I say?”
Actually, Lecesne is saying a lot these days. He’s starring in his own thoughtful one-man show “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” at the Westside Theatre.
Adapted from his 2008 book, the play looks at how a small New Jersey town is torn apart following the mysterious disappearance of 14-year-old Leonard. The teen is unabashedly flamboyant and fun — he wears mascara and Capri pants — and an easy target of bullies. But he charms most everyone, from an old watch repair store owner to a brash hair salon owner, all skillfully portrayed by Lecesne.
At a time when gay and transgender figures are gaining acceptance, Lecesne warns that The Trevor Project’s suicide hotline for gay and questioning youth got 44,000 calls last year.
AP: Why did you make your book about a special boy lost to a hostile world into a piece of theater?
Lecesne: I felt like I wanted to get a group of people in a room and think about this issue in an active way that wasn’t scold-y and didn’t have some kind of big stick to beat people into submission. I wanted to open their hearts to the possibility of difference and how beautiful it is and how amazing it is.
AP: How did you find these nine characters?
Lecesne: They kind of find me. I just listen for them and try to figure them out. They apply for the job and then I see if it works. It’s weird. They help me write it. I don’t sit down and write it like a writer. I listen for them and their voice, and I listen to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.
AP: Do you get a sense that young people today are changing their views about what gay and straight is?
Lecesne: They’re not interested in a gay or straight. It’s much more fluid. And the idea that you could come out is becoming an old-fashioned idea. Not for everyone, but there are some kids who are like, ‘It’s just more fluid.’ I think that that’s the way of the future: Sexuality will be less of a sentence.
AP: This has been a breakthrough year for transgender issues, from TV shows with transgender stars to the Pentagon ready to lift the transgender ban. What’s your take?
Lecesne: First of all, all these things are helpful. They’re all wonderful, like Caitlyn Jenner and ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ but for many kids, the divide between the life they’re living and the way the media portrays it, there’s a gigantic gap. And the idea of spanning that gap is impossible to them. They’re 13 and their community and their parents are hating that happening. They don’t have the imagination to able to say, ‘Well, I’m going to get there.’
AP: So this celebration may actually be harmful sometimes?
Lecesne: We’re far from being out of the woods. In fact, I think in some ways it makes it harder for some kids. Because as they hear around them the hatred that’s beginning to be more vocal, those kids are surrounded by those voices and that’s really hard.
AP: One iconic image from the play is Leonard’s platform sneakers — a pair of Converse high-tops with several flip-flop bottoms glued on. Where did you get that?
Lecesne: The person who did that as a kid is Brad Goreski, who is a host of “Fashion Police.” He’s a friend of mine and when he was a kid, he made those platform sneakers. When I wrote the book, I asked him, ‘Can I steal this?’ He said, ‘Oh, yes, sure.’ He was a very unique boy who grew up in Canada and that was one of the ways that he expressed his uniqueness.
AP: You should sell them in the gift store.
Lecesne: I know! I’m trying to get Converse to actually make a modified version of them so we can sell them and give a portion to the Trevor Project.
AP: Then we can all wear them!
Lecesne: Yeah, a lot of strained ankles.
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